Monthly Archives: October 2016

Growing in the Cloud: Modern Nursery Data Management Systems

Abstract

Today’s modern telecommunication and Internet technologies have come a long way to help decrease the amount of paperwork and make information easier to use. Phones are becoming small handheld computers capable of so much more than just a simple phone call. Smart phones have apps for calendar, social media, business functions, and much more. This technology can be used to simplify or improve nursery operations. This article gives an introduction to a few beneficial cloudbased technologies that can make nursery management a little easier, optimize time, provide useful real-time information, and minimize data input and associated errors. This paper was presented at a joint meeting of the Western Forest and Conservation Nursery Association, the Intermountain Container Seedling Growers Association, and the Intertribal Nursery Council (Boise, ID, September 9–11, 2014).

What Is the Cloud and How Can Nurseries Use It?

In the simplest terms, cloud computing means storing and accessing data and programs using the Internet instead of a computer’s hard drive. Internet storage eliminates the need to rely on one computer or device. Depending on the cloud service used and how it is configured, information could be available everywhere Internet access is available, and, in some cases, even where Internet access is unavailable. A cloud-based version of most computer-based applications and software can be used on any computer or handheld device. For example, Microsoft® Office is now in the cloud and has the same functionality of Microsoft® Office on any computer or device almost everywhere. One can simply log onto the Web site or open the app on a handheld device and be able to use the programs as needed. The cloud can be used for sales and invoicing, inventory, databases, data storage, e-mail, software, and more. Because many options are available for using technology to improve information flow, it can be difficult to determine which technologies are best suited for a given nursery. Examples of a few cloud-based technologies that can greatly improve nursery functionality and work flow are described in this article.

Syncing Information Across Devices

Several applications make it easy to share data among computers and devices so the most current version of a file is always available to each computer that has access to it. Cloud-based storage options such as Google Drive and Dropbox provide access to files from any device with an Internet connection at a very low cost (table 1). These applications also have options for downloading files for use when not connected to the Internet. By simply downloading the application from its Web site and following the setup instructions, the program will then run in the background and constantly update files as they are changed on any computer or handheld device linked to it. It may seem simple, but these programs are very powerful in their application by allowing access to files, regardless of where one is and what device is in use, and by syncing automatically among computers, phones, and other devices. This system has the added benefit of a real-time backup of all files on a remote, secure server thereby eliminating the need to keep physical data backups. When installing the applications on mobile devices, the files can be physically downloaded to that device, taken into the field for data collection, and then automatically uploaded to all other devices. This ease of access is especially useful for field inventories in locations where Internet connections may not be reliable. Many companies today offer cloud storage, and each program has unique options. Some programs also offer business plans that enable you to control access to specific files and folders.

table 1

Cloud-Based Databases

Most nursery offices have piles of handwritten paperwork with
information on seed, sowing dates and locations, culturing,
transplanting, packing, shipping, etc., which require someone
to manually input that information into a database so it can
be used in some manner. These piles of paperwork often get
piled according to their importance, and less important paperwork
may sit for a very long time before being entered into a
computer database. Some paperwork may never get input into
a system, because the time required to enter it outweighs the
benefit of the information. During busy seasons when other
aspects of nursery management require attention, paperwork
can go by the wayside. Nurseries can benefit greatly by
eliminating paperwork and spending less time entering the
information into a mobile device than was previously spent
writing it by hand.

Some database programs available today mimic commonly
used programs such as Microsoft Excel® or Microsoft Access™,
thereby minimizing the transition period and learning curve
necessary to use them. With these databases, existing Excel
documents can be uploaded to the program’s Web site so that
important information is available when the new database
system is put into operation. When crops are tracked with a
unique number or identifier, new information about the crop
can be linked to that identifier so existing information does
not have to be reentered. This ability to link data is called a
relational database and is something to consider when looking
at all the databases offered. If linking different tables and
information across a database is desired, then a relational
database is a must.

After researching a few options, we chose TrackVia (http://
www.trackvia.com, Denver, CO) for use at IFA Nurseries
(which grew out of the old Industrial Forestry Association) in
Canby, OR. TrackVia is an online database that offers a mobile
interface and full access on both desktop and mobile devices.
It is described as a “do-it-yourself workflow software platform
for business users.” The following sections describe a few nurs-
ery operations in which this technology has been applied at IFA
Nurseries to assist with information collection and data flow.

Cultural Practices

Nursery cultural practices are anything done to the crop
during its growth cycle. Culturing includes fertilizer and
chemical applications, pest management, root pruning, quality
testing, etc. Using cloud-based databases has been a huge help
in information flow and recordkeeping and has significantly
improved our overall efficiency.

We have one master table with a list of every chemical we
use, along with rates, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
numbers, reentry intervals, necessary personal protective
equipment, chemical classes, etc. (figure 1). As we walk
through the crop to determine pest management needs, we can
simply add a new chemical application (or cultural practice)
to the task list and let our operators know a new chemical
application or culturing practice has been posted (figure 2).
The tasks are ordered by importance and the operators simply
access the database on their mobile device and select each
task to get all the information they need to properly apply the
chemical or cultural treatment (figure 3). After the application
is complete, the operators input when and where they applied                                                     the treatment(s) and the amount of any chemicals they used.
This system has enabled us to efficiently keep track of our
chemical usage and have a running list of everything we have
applied or have done to a given crop at the click of a button.
Now, when we are out in the field with customers and they
ask what has been done to their crop, we can immediately
access a list of dates and activities for their crop on a mobile
device. Also, when it is time to order more chemicals or
fertilizers, the database provides an inventory of exactly how
much chemical has been used in the past, thereby enabling us
to accurately estimate future needs.

trackvia

figure 2

figure 3

Lifting and Packing

Another area of our operation in which using TrackVia
has increased efficiency and decreased paperwork is lifting
and packing operations. Lifting and packing season is the
busiest season we have, because all the stock will be lifted
and shipped or stored during a few short months. It is also
the season when the ability to stay abreast of paperwork is at
its worst. In the past, we would print a list of beds or crops
we wanted to lift that day and hand it to our lifting operator.
The operator would then fill out the information such as the
number of workers, start times, stop times, beds, etc. At the
end of the day, the operator would give the paperwork to
someone in the office who would then enter it into a computer-
based Microsoft Excel® or Microsoft Access™ database.
Since introducing TrackVia, the operators have been carrying
mobile tablets on which they can access real-time information
about each nursery bed and the lifting schedule priorities. As
the operators complete the work, they enter the date and time,
comments, number of lifters, and other details. The database
then automatically calculates the labor production as the
operator enters the information. This system also enables the
manager to easily change the scheduling priorities based on
conditions or needs; these changes show up immediately in
the operators’ tablets.

Another useful piece of information we are tracking in the
cloud is cull data. In the past, all cull data was input on the
back of the packing forms and never input into any database
because the volume of information was too much and we
rarely used the information. Now, as the packing line leaders
do their quality checks in the packing shed, they enter the
lot number and its corresponding cull data. The cull data is
displayed graphically in real time as the information is being
collected. This feature has provided a unique retrospective
examination of our crop types to gauge the quality of each so
we can improve in subsequent seasons.

Shipping and receiving information has also been very useful
to keep in TrackVia. It enables us to link current pack production
and volume to a specific customer. After the information
is linked, we can bring up a specific customer’s name and see
every lot that the customer has in the cooler or freezer and
lots that have not yet been lifted. This approach enables us to
readily see the total lots packed and shipped and to determine
the balance remaining for each customer.
By tracking all this information in the cloud, we have a power-
ful database for real-time tracking of crop information, as well
as for following the progression of seedling lots over multiple
years. In addition to recording data, we can add “dashboards”
within the program to build graphs to summarize information
across tables. These graphs update as we input information.
For each season, we create graphs for transplant production,
packing production, sowing, etc., to gauge efficiency. With
all the information in one place, we are able to keep track of
daily production and the production among crews.

Cloud-Based Control Systems

Irrigation scheduling at our greenhouse is a full-time job. In
the past, irrigators had to do a lot of walking through the crop
and then walking back to a computer to schedule the irrigation.
Now, irrigators have a tablet or smartphone that can turn on
and set irrigation schedules as they walk around the greenhouse
(figure 4). In addition, we are able to control irrigation
applications using a cloud-based system. Opensprinkler
(Rayshobby Shop, Amherst, MA, at http://www.rayshobby.
net) is a Wi-Fi based irrigation controller that uses an app on
a mobile device or Web site to set irrigation schedules and run
programs (figure 5). It enables anyone with Wi-Fi or Internet
access to instantly turn sprinklers on and off. The program
includes the ability to input restrictions to prevent turning on
more irrigation lines than the pump can support. Irrigation
zones can be prioritized and put into a queue; the system will
turn on the next irrigation zone when the current zone finishes.
It has been a very valuable time saver and solved a lot of
logistical and timing issues. The system is easy to set up and
very inexpensive compared with a computer-based system
and integrates easily with handheld devices and computers.

figure 4

figure 5

Considerations for Selecting a Cloud-
Based Database

It is important to consider a few things before starting to use
a cloud-based system. First, not everything is most efficient
when directly input into the cloud. As mentioned previously,
we download our inventory files to our tablets for input during
the day and then upload them back to the cloud at the end of
the day. Cellular and Wi-Fi connections, however, are not
always the best choice when constantly updating a file in the
field. Even though we have great mobile service in our fields,
it does not always have a good connection to the site and data
can be lost if we are not careful. This system can also be a
big drain on phone batteries using a cellular connection, but
using a physical file on a tablet does not use nearly as much.
Second, it may not be desirable to directly enter everything into
the database. For instance, we decided to have pack volume
and production entered into the database directly by the line
leaders in the packing shed, but we chose to enter actual volume
packed later, after we double check the numbers. An accurate
pack volume is worth the extra data entry compared with
troubleshooting errors at a later time. Third, and last, it will
take time to develop cloud-based applications to be useful and
efficient for a given operation. We started out in the summer
by adding cultural practices, and then before every season, we
added more functionality and made adjustments as we went
along. Upon initial use, the system may not be exactly as desired,
but with trial and error and input from others who use it, it
will become more efficient and easier to use over time.

Address correspondence to—
Michael Taylor, Nursery Manager, IFA Nurseries Inc., 1887
N. Holly Street, Canby, OR 97013; e-mail: mtaylor@ifanurseries.
com; phone: 503–805–1222.

(Taken by permission from “Tree Planters’ Notes” by Michael Taylor)